ATHENS – Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Greece’s capital on Nov. 10 for the start of a three-day visit, said his country wants a bigger role in the country, starting with the Chinese shipping business firm COSCO that’s operating the port of Piraeus.
Writing for Kathimerini in an exclusive article about his visit, that comes after Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently went to Shanghai for an international expo, Xi that that COSCO is the “dragon’s head” for China in Greece.
China has said before it wants to use Piraeus as a gateway into the European Union and the New Democracy government has given the okay for a 612-million euro ($674.36 million) modified overhaul of the port that had been stymied under the former ruling anti-business Radical Left SYRIZA.
Piraeus is “emerging as the biggest port in the Mediterranean,” he said under COSCO, which wants improvements to the port to include those that would allow berthing of major cruise liners that could prove another boon for tourism.
“It is our duty to upgrade our current cooperation in all sectors,” he said, adding that China wants more investments that the government is chasing to spur a slow recovery fro a 9 1/2-year-long economic and austerity crisis.
Xi, who was to meet Nov. 11 with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Mitsotakis, added that China and Greece should take lessons from “the deep wisdom of their ancient civilizations” and jointly foster the creation of “a new type of international relations based on respect, justice and mutually beneficial cooperation.”
But he indicated China’s real intent is to use Greece to get into the EU even more despite critics who said that could be detrimental and force countries to bow to China to get business and trade.
In that sense, he called for deeper cooperation for the One Belt, One Road initiative – China’s plan for a modern Silk Road of railways, ports and other facilities linking East Asia with Europe – highlighting Greece’s favorable geographical location and “particular advantages” in the shipping sector.
He added China is willing to boost imports of quality Greek agricultural products that many Chinese have gotten a taste for and giving Greek companies a chance to expand business for their commodities with Greece producing some of the world’s best, ranging from honey to olive oil to saffron.
During his visit to Athens, Xi said he wants to push closer ties after the two countries had already cooperated in a number of trade and infrastructure sectors.
In Shanghai, he and Mitsotakis discussed Greek agricultural goods and working in the fields of energy, transport, telecommunications, tourism and the possibility of Greece becoming a center of logistics.
Mitsotakis will have a delicate balancing act though, hoping to appease China while not alienating the United States or the EU after Xi had said he wants to explore Greece “becoming a logistics center” for handling Chinese goods exported to Europe.
Xi is expected to visit Piraeus and COSCO officials, attend the opening of a new Bank of China branch in Athens and visit historical sites such as the Acropolis.
“However, EU and US diplomats will be looking on with caution as China continues to show an interest in Greece, and especially in relation to Athens’ participation in the Beijing-led “17+1” cooperation platform that includes Eastern and Southeastern European countries that are both inside and outside the EU,” wrote the South China Morning Post, with some EU officials fearing China wants to divide the bloc.
Plamen Tonchev, head of the Asia unit at the Institute of International Economic Relations in Athens, told the paper that Mitsotakis saw the platform as a way for Greece to increase it stature in the region.
“Greece joined under the previous government, (but) Mitsotakis will not pull the country out as long as he sees it as an opportunity to claim back Greece’s role in Southeast Europe and particularly in the Western Balkans,” he said.
An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said China “may ask Greece to play a bigger role in coordinating the 17+1, as some European parties to the initiative are already lukewarm about it,” because not enough money was involved, the paper added.
An adviser to the Mitsotakis government who didn’t want to identified said the key issue was building better investment and trade relations with China while refraining from “showing the way” to China to gain a bigger foothold in the EU.
“The prime minister is fully aware of the EU’s concern over China’s intentions, and he is not going to go against it,” said the person, who asked not to be named without explaining how Mitsotakis could do both.
When he came to Athens in October, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that China was “using economic means to coerce countries into lopsided deals that benefit Beijing and leave its clients mired in debt,” as the US wanted a bigger military presence in Greece and for business.
The Chinese paper said that Greece represents only 1 percent China’s total investment in Europe but that Piraeus is critical and COSCO has turned the port into one of the most important in the EU.